Haifa gains historic place in Europe's elite
The Forum Grimaldi Hotel in Monaco will be the focus of attention Thursday afternoon for Europe's soccer elite, and the eyes of Israeli fans will be upon them too. The draw for the first group stage of this season's Champions League will begin at 5 P.M. and Maccabi Haifa will be a part of the show at the "mother of all draws."
Haifa made history Wednesday night and turned a decade-old dream into reality when the club became the first Israeli outfit to qualify for the prestigious Champions League, with 31 other clubs who are the cream of European soccer, after a pulsating encounter with Sturm Graz which ended 3-3.
The 3-3 draw, played at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium in the southern Austrian city, earned Haifa a 5-3 aggregate win. The match was full of incident and excitement, as the Austrians took an early lead from an Eddie Bosnar free kick in the 11th minute which went through the Haifa wall and beat the diving Dudu Awat.
But Haifa did not panic. In fact, they equalized through Giovanni Rosso, who slotted the ball under the Graz goalkeeper from an acute angle in the 27th minute, and the two teams went into the changerooms at the half level at 1-1.
Haifa received a real fright in the second half when Imre Szabics made it 2-1 to the hosts in the 58th minute. To make matters worse, striker Ayegbeni Yakoubu, who was a real thorn in the Graz defense, was dubiously sent off in the 68th minute after he clashed with a Graz defender as he was breaking forward on the counter-attack.
Things became even more desperate when Guenter Neukirschner scored Graz's third in the 73rd minute, leaving the Austrians a single goal away from qualification.
But as the Austrians threw everything into attack, a clever counter-move by Haifa saw Rosso, who was again the inspirational player for the team, set up a move from the left which ended with Adoram Keisi sneaking in and blasting the ball into the top of the Graz net from close range.
Two minutes later parity was restored on the pitch as Bosnar, who scored the first goal, was sent off for a foul on Nenad Prelja.
Haifa were in the driver's seat again, but still knew that on such a night anything could happen, and indeed it did. Graz threw caution to the wind and left their defense wide open in the final minute of the match to allow Raimondas Zautautas to put Walid Badir through. With only Webber to beat, he rounded the keeper and made no mistake.
Even with four minutes of extra time there was no coming back for the Austrians, and the historic achievement which Haifa had registered in the annals of Israeli soccer was sealed.
"This is a very happy moment, what more can I say," club chairman Yaakov Shahar said after the match. Shahar will be in Monaco on Thursday for the groups draw and it is almost certain that one of the great clubs of Europe - either Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich or Inter Milan among others - will be one of Haifa's opponents.
But Haifa are unlikely to be able to host their European opponents in the coastal city. Since Israel is still deemed off limits by UEFA because of security concerns, the club will almost certainly have to host the games in Cyprus.
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